(After Anne Hathaway the next biggest name actor or actress to appear in an ‘LDS film’ is … Gary Coleman?)
As such, Bonneville, a 2006 release featuring Jessica Lange (Two Oscars, four other nominations), Kathy Bates (One Oscar, two other nominations) and Joan Allen (3 Oscar nominations) basically redefines the “star power” rating for an LDS film simply by its existence.
Written by Daniel D. Davis and directed by Christopher Rowley, Bonneville is a simple and quiet film about three older women who are called to be there for each other as death and other trials make their inevitable appearance. Bonneville has strong characters and a good spirit; however, its contrived plot and limited appeal make the film not quite live up to the potential brought by its three stars.
Arvilla Holden (Lange) has just returned home to Pocatello, Idaho after cremating her husband of 20 years. Joe, her husband (apparently Arvilla’s first marriage, later in life) was a man who opened up the joys of world travel to someone who had never left Idaho before they met, and his absence has left a huge hole in her life.
Her sudden loneliness is intensified when her step-daugher “requests” (read: demands) that her father’s ashes be buried next to her mother in California (and has control of her father’s house in Pocatello via her father’s will as leverage). Torn between this demand and wanting to grant her late husband’s last wish to have his ashes scattered around the country, Arvilla agrees to take his remains to California. On a whim, she decides to drive instead of fly, and is accompanied on her unexpected road-trip by two of her LDS neighbors and friends. It’s a college-style road trip for three 50-something women to discover themselves and have fun before heading into the unknown future.
Kathy Bates and Joan Allen play the two friends, LDS women at different ends of the conservative/liberal spectrum. (Arvilla does not seem to be LDS.) Allen’s Carol married young, hands out copies of the Book of Mormon to strangers, says things like “Oh my heck!”, along with things to her grieving friend that she thinks are comforting, but really aren’t. (“Maybe God wants Joe back with his family.”)
Bates’ Margene, on the other hand, lost her teaching job for taking a liberal approach to sex education, and doesn’t take life too seriously — thinking nothing of a little coffee and alcohol on the side. (Carol: “What kind of Mormon are you?” Margene: “The fun kind!”)
While Arvilla is the focus of the journey, both of the other women get to have some meaningful experiences as well: Carol loosens up a little on the trip, getting out of the conservative Mormon comfort zone, and Margene has a little romance of her own with an older widower along the way.
On the micro-level, Bonneville is well-written, with strong characters and good dialogue. (Obviously, the experienced cast helps here, which also includes veteran actors Tom Skerritt and Christine Baranski). The theme of how life must continue on after the death of a loved one, and the value of keeping promises has some general appeal, even if the movie doesn’t try to be a hyper-emotional tear-jerker.
(The marketing materials describe Bonneville as a “poignant comedy”, although I would argue the “comedy” part. There are a handful of “cute” moments, but no real comedy here — don’t go into the film expecting laughs or else you’ll be disappointed.)
On the macro-level, however, the writing is not as strong. We have good characters and a good premise, but the events along the way to California from Idaho are often contrived and can’t find a consistent tone.
The three travellers encounter a random hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere who saves them from a flat tire. They get stranded on a sandbar on a house-boat around Lake Powell, then face an attempted mugging. They run into a friendly truck driver who invites them to dinner and dancing. Later, Carol — the conservative Mormon, remember — gets one (1) free pull at a slot machine in Las Vegas and wins $175,000. (That’ll teach HER not to gamble, right?)
Any one of the above may have been acceptable as a random roll of fate on the road trip, but all of them put together form a rather contrived pattern of events that distances the film from reality. The unrealistic series of events end up clashing with the film’s aim to create realistic emotional elements with identifiable characters.
Contrivances would be more acceptable if they have a direct link to the premise or the characters’ personal journey. The encounter with the young hitchhiker looking for his father fits this category, as his story makes an impression on Arvilla about the power of keeping promises. However, the other events don’t seem to have a connection between the character’s thoughts or struggles, nor are they triggers for meaningful conversations.
The ending is a little disappointing as well. Arvilla’s step-daughter is setup to be a more major character than she is — the film keeps switching back to her at various times to show her reaction to Arvilla’s road-trip, but without any particular payoff other than a brief rant at her father’s funeral. (It seems like there should have been at least one more direct conversation between her and Arvilla somewhere before the credits.)
Bonneville sets up a plot point of a search for a second will written by Arvilla’s late husband that would allow her to keep the house, but then is never discussed again. The film ends with the three friends pondering Arvilla’s uncertain future before returning home, without any obvious connection to the events of the road-trip. (Hmmm…if only one of Arvilla’s friends had won a great sum of money gambling recently and could help.)
Good characters, so-so story, limited appeal — that about sums it up. It’s nice to see an LDS screenwriter get the opportunity to work with A-list actresses in a lower-budget “LDS film”, but wish the strong premise and spectacular acting talent gathered together had a little bit more to work with.
Final Grade: B-
Other Random Comments:
(1) According to the “Making of…” material, Joan Allen came to Utah early before filming and spent some time with LDS families to get more of a sense of her conservative Mormon character. (Allen: “Since my character was so deeply attached to that religion, I came a week early and spent my time with people from the church. They brought me into their homes, took me to their church, helped me immensely understand the religion in a way that you can’t always get when you’re reading a book.”) It obviously paid off as she’s very credible as an LDS housewife.